Science & Research

Panel discusses bias in STEM fields

Five female presenters explain reasons for and difficulties in pursing work in STEM fields

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From left, Jean King, Robin Wellington, Nicole Renaud, Janet Blume and Suzanne DeLaMonte discuss their work in STEM fields.

Breaking down the barriers that women face in science, technology, engineering and math fields “has to be a movement,” said Jean King, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, as part of a panel on women in STEM fields Tuesday evening.

The panel discussion, entitled “Inspiring Women in STEM,” was held in Salomon 101 and hosted by the Brown chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. The discussion featured five female scientists from Brown, UMass Medical School, St. John’s University and the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.

“Not all of us in the audience are women, thank goodness,” said Liza Cariaga-Lo, associate provost for academic development and diversity, as she surveyed the crowd. She acknowledged that this month is Women’s History Month and added that both sexes must participate in conversations about the importance of diversifying fields like STEM.

 

Pursuing STEM and community

Passion and community emerged as themes of the evening as panelists described their motivations for pursuing STEM careers as well as what has sustained them in their field.

For King, there was never a question of whether she would study the sciences or the humanities, but only one of “what kind of science” to pursue, she said.

Later in college, the novelty of certain research invigorated her. “I could actually discover something that wasn’t discovered before,” King said. “I thought, a cell that talks? I’m in. I knew my passion when I saw it.”

But other panelists said their paths to STEM careers were not as straight at King’s.

“The honest truth is that it’s almost random,” said Suzanne DeLaMonte, professor of neurosurgery at the Alpert Medical School. She said she switched majors several times before settling on a final decision.

Despite differing educational and career paths, all panelists agreed that tight communities were crucial to their success as women in STEM fields.

As the first black woman with tenure at UMass and the only tenured black female in the history of the 45-year-old school, King said a support system has always been vital. When she could not find a support network in graduate school, a former professor suggested she start her own. King developed one that endures at the school today, she said.

 

‘It has to be a movement’

Concerns over the number of women in STEM jobs featured as a prominent point in the discussion — Cariaga-Lo asked panelists to reflect on how institutions and industries can create environments that encourage greater female participation and cultures in which women flourish.

King admitted that the task is not and won’t be easy.

“It has to be a movement,” she said. “It’s not going to happen with a particular event or program. They make incremental change.”

Women and men must know the benefits of diversity in science and use hard evidence, such as research that highlights the benefits of increased female participation in scientific fields, to promote it, King said. “We have to support the movement with knowledge and scientific data, not just our passion for it,” she said, touting the advantage of assembling a team that brings diverse viewpoints.

Though women in a field where they feel underrepresented may find it difficult to speak out about reforms they would like to see, “it is incumbent upon us all to speak up and at least open discussion,” said Janet Blume, associate professor of engineering and director of undergraduate programs in the School of Engineering.

 

Overcoming bias

Panelists also addressed the differences between male and female candidates for the same position, a topic introduced by audience member Terrie Fox Wetle, dean of the School of Public Health, during the question-and-answer session.

When interviewing candidates, Wetle notices that men often seem to exude more confidence in their abilities, she said. But “the women who come in, who have stronger (resumes), will almost be apologetic in the interview,” she said. Women frequently describe their accomplishments as team efforts and are hesitant to use the “I-word,” she added.

Interviewers can sometimes have a bias toward overly self-promotional candidates, DeLaMonte said. When assessing female candidates, interviewers should “look at their achievements instead of timidity,” she added.

Though women can sometimes come across as timid in an interview, they should try to present themselves in the best light rather than merely emulating men, King said.

Addressing an alternative issue, one female graduate student in the audience expressed concern that some women may attain a STEM job solely on account of their gender.

“You shouldn’t be thinking, ‘I’m a woman,’” DeLaMonte said. “Your job is to do the best that you can to fill the objective of the position.”

 

A balancing act

Another audience member asked about how to balance her career ambitions with starting a family.

There is no clear-cut answer for when to have children, King said. Unlike anything else for scientists, “this one is not an experiment,” she said. “I had kids as a post-doc. … It’s never the easy thing to do.”

“You can’t really know until you’re there,” King said of balancing a career with starting a family. What’s most important, she reiterated, is to have a support system in place for when the time comes.

 

A previous version of the photo caption accompanying this article misidentified the panelist second from the right. She is Janet Blume, not Lorna Gibson. The Herald regrets the error.